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On Batman, beauty, and ’Wind in the Willows’

Ever since I was old enough to listen and learn - and eventually to read - I’ve enjoyed memorizing things.

It probably started with the “Batman” theme song on TV.

I somehow realized it wasn’t enough to sing “Batman! Batman! Batman!” over and over like kids at school were doing. I knew it was important -- really important -- that you sang them the correct number of times. Eleven times, to be precise. Four times to begin with, evenly spaced out along with the music, then in two clusters of three. Then, after the singers have finally joined in exuberantly on that iconic “Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da! (exactly thirteen of those ”da“s, by the way), there’s one last ear-splittingly harmonized ”BATMAN!“

It was important, I realized, that if you were going to do it, you did it right. And I took a certain pride, at six-year of age, in having done the extra work to learn it correctly.

For years to follow, I would occasionally set out to memorize all kinds of odd things, perfectly willing to learn short stuff or lengthy stuff, easy and/or challenging. In third grade, I memorized the lyrics to every song on the “Dr. Dolittle” soundtrack. Even the boring ones. By the age of eight, I’d become reasonably good at mimicking the singing styles of both Rex Harrison and Anthony Newley. For the record, singing like Anthony Newley on the school playground gets you beat up more often than singing like Rex Harrison. Just so you know.

In fifth grade, when my family began going to church regularly, I memorized “Amazing Grace,” forwards AND backwards.

“Me like wretch a saved that sound the sweet how grace amazing.”

While that didn’t get me beat up in Sunday school, it didn’t make me a lot of friends, either. Still, on some deep level, I knew that what I was doing by taking on these random memorization challenges was probably going to pay off, because it took a lot of effort and concentration, goal-setting and tenacity and follow-through. And those are good things, right?

Admittedly, there was a level of “show off” in it, I suppose. Later, in high school, one teacher required all of her students to memorize and recite the William Ernest Henley poem “Invictus” (“It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the Master of my fate, I am the Captain of my soul”), and it was then I began to realize that memorization of poems like that and suiting up for P.E. bore striking similarities.

They were both hard and not hard at the same time. Running a mile isn’t really complicated, and either is memorizing a poem, or a song or a monologue. Memorization is not magic, or rocket science or brain surgery, though I suppose it comes in handy with all of those things. Memorization, be it of a poem or a phone number, is just good old-fashioned work. Like running a mile, it simply requires you to take one repetitive step after another for as long as necessary till you cross the finish line. And for what it’s worth, running circles around a high school track is a great time to mentally recite whatever it is I was working to memorize at that moment.

Speaking of which, also in High School, as part of a Bible as Literature class, I once memorized the entire text of “Song of Solomon” in the Old Testament. I was not alone. It was, after all, a school project, suggesting we approach biblical passages as poetry. But while other kids were memorizing Psalms and Proverbs and the sermon on the mount, I was the only kid in the class brazen enough to memorize the one book of the Bible where I got to stand up and recite ecstatic descriptions of sex, including things like, “Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor; thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies; thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.”

For what it’s worth, I got an A+.

Memorizing things is still something I enjoy, and commit myself to regularly, often for so reason other than to give those mental muscles a workout and keep them in shape. Having long ago become immersed in the world of theater, I have also, of course, been required to commit countless lines in countless plays to memory.

For a performer, the big one, the Boston Marathon of memorization, is learning a one-person-show. That’s usually about 75-minutes of non-stop talking, learned word-for-word. Few things are scarier or more rewarding, for the satisfaction of the challenge alone.

But in between shows - as just about every person is right now - it’s still important to memorize things, just as its important to stay in shape in between races. So during the recent shut-down of theaters, I’ve stayed the course. And I have to say, nothing has been quite as challenging as memorizing the 3800 words that is Kenneth Graham’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” otherwise known as chapter 7 of “The Wind in the Willows.”

That’s what I’ve been doing with my spare time.

I started in early April, with no reason other than that it seemed like a nice thing to keep me occupied during the early weeks of sheltering and closures. As of last week, I finished, having memorized the whole thing in about three-and-a-half months.

There is still work to be done, of course. I’ve got the boards all in place, and now I have to nail them all down, so to speak. I’ve learned a great deal, not just about memorization and the various tricks and skill sets that work best for my particular brain. I’ve also learned a lot about the mechanics of descriptive writing, which Graham was a master at. Seriously, the guy was a wordsmithing genius. But reading a beautiful piece of text gives you only a fraction of what you get from then sitting down and memorizing it. Memorizing lets you really crack open a poem or a song or a monologue, figure out and understand how it functions and has been put together, and then lets you reassemble it again every time you recite it from memory.

Memorizing “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” been a true joy and pleasure at a time when joy and pleasure sometimes seem in short supply.

I’ve also been able to really delve into various understandings of what the story is (possibly) about. Over the years since “The Wind in the Willows” was published in 1908, the book has often been banned and vilified because of this particular chapter. To this day, with the book long being in the public domain, buyers have to be careful when purchasing a copy of to make sure some zealous publisher hasn’t eliminated chapter 7 altogether. About one in three, or maybe one in four publications of the book that I have picked up in bookstores don’t have “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” at all.

If you’ve never read it, I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but the problem people have with this chapter, I will say, is roughly along the lines of why some people don’t want their children to read the Harry Potter books.

What I’ve come to understand from my 3-1/2 months of deep-diving into this near-plotless tone poem of a tale is that Graham was probably using the odd, flight-of-fancy chapter as his own personal challenge as a writer. What I sense from it is a writer pushing themselves to set down the most beautiful words and sentences they are capable of creating, and in the process ended up writing a story that is itself about beauty. “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” filled with references to sleeping and dreaming and waking and drowsing, is, I think, all about awakening to beauty. It’s about those transcendent moments when something jars us out of our habits and comforts and we suddenly see the world in a striking new way, then struggle to hold onto that vision as we return to our previous habits and comforts.

So as it turns out, there is not a better piece of writing for me to have spent the last few months in such close contact with as this one. Whether or not I ever turn on a camera or step on a stage and recite it all for an audience is not the point. I encourage everyone, whether you think you’d bee good at it or not, to pick something you love to read and commit it to memory, even just a line or a passage.

If you do, I suggest you pick something beautiful. Or, like the Batman theme song, at least meaningful and fun.

Those words you memorize could be with you for the rest of your life.

(Culture Junkie runs every other week in the Argus-Courier. Yu can contact Templeton at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)

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